Senator Jacqui Lambie takes a spin on the carbon cycle

17 July 2014 —

Chief executive of the Forest Products Association, Ross Hampton, on Thursday morning rode a timber bicycle to the doorstep of Parliament House to hand-deliver a letter from peak state forest industries to protest the shedding of forest science jobs in CSIRO and to make a direct plea to the Palmer United Party to intervene. Tasmanian Senator Jackie Lambie accepted the letter of behalf of PUP, and delighted the media crowd by having a quick ride on the bike, which FPA have named “The Carbon Cycle”.

The letter was signed by peak state forest industries organisations and the Engineered Wood Products Association, that represents the growing massive timbers sector and other value-added materials.

It called for PUP to refuse to pass the budget savings measures which will result in the axing of forest science jobs at CSIRO.

“CSIRO has been helping drive our forest industries forward for 85 years. Forestry has been there from the start. Now, according to media reports, CSIRO is planning to abandon this field. Official responses thus far that a handful of scientists will be left ‘as a base from which to rebuild’ is fooling no-one,” Mr Hampton said in a media statement ahead of delivering the letter.

“Some two decades ago we had 300 people working in this area. That is down to only 33 now. Our competitor nations, such as Chile, Vietnam, China, Canada and New Zealand, are backing their forest industries as the source of the world’s greatest renewable resource. That means fibre for construction, papers and even bio fuels and bio plastics. Australia is backing out.”

However, within the CSIRO itself, there has been some question as to whether industry should also put  some of its own financial weight to support the science.

The Fifth Estate spoke with a source from CSIRO’s Black Mountain research facility in the ACT, where a major part of the organisation’s forestry-related research is carried out.

The source said there has been some confusion in the media about the numbers of staff who are affected and what is being proposed.

The group of 33 scientists Hampton referred to comprise the  Forest Systems Division, which includes researchers across many aspects of forestry, including conservation, productive commercial forestry, carbon accounting, bush fire and fire behaviour. The source said there would be a significant number of jobs lost from this division, but exactly how many and when is at this stage uncertain.

There are also nine staff being lost from the plant breeding and genetics division, which is separate to Forest Systems.

The source said this was part of a restructure which commenced before the recent budget, with the division, which currently has 13 researchers, being ended entirely.

The division’s tree breeding and genetics researchers are among those losing their jobs. Four general plant breeding scientists are to retain jobs within CSIRO, and will be redeployed elsewhere, most likely to cotton or other agricultural products.

“CSIRO has made a decision to exit tree breeding,” the source said.

There are some forestry-related research roles which will remain, including the carbon accounting research and the fire research, which is considered to be in the national interest so is being scaled back rather than axed entirely. The biofuels research, however, will be ended and this was partly a reflection of lack of uptake and investment on the part of industry.

The lack of financial contribution from key industry associations and companies in the sector made it difficult for the CSIRO to continue its own level of investment.

“Forest industries really need to support research,” the source said.

Carbon farming not likely to drive funds towards more researcher roles.

“It is interesting if you compare carbon farming and forest industries, the forest industries are a $3 billion industry, carbon farming is still almost nothing at present. And as an industry it is not likely to take off any time soon, in fact, it is going backwards,” the source said.

“My concern is we are losing our generic capability in forest research.”

This includes the ecosystems services aspects, such as the role forests have in protecting water quality and ensuring biodiversity preservation.

Big picture changes across CSIRO

Forest-related research roles at CSIRO have been decreasing over many years. The former Division of Forestry had as many as 350 staff in the 1980s, and this number has dwindled partly due to the companies in the industry not making funding research a priority in the past.

Before the budget, the CSIRO formally announced that during the 2014-15 financial year it would shed approximately 300 support staff across the entire organisation including administrative roles, executive assistants and other non-scientific roles, in addition to 420 research jobs.

As part of an organisational restructure, 24 separate entities are being reformed into nine, with the result that 100 middle management researcher roles, such as some of the program leaders, will also be phased out.

What the low-carbon mailman brought the Senator

The letter which Senator Lambie accepted on behalf of PUP and which was also run as a half page ad in this morning’s Canberra Times read:

Dear Mr Palmer

Clearly you are a Party Leader prepared to make the hard calls when you believe the government has it wrong. We urge you to use your Party’s influence – even at this 11th hour – to save our CSIRO forest scientists.

After 85 years of world leading, productivity-driving breakthroughs, CSIRO is about to effectively axe forestry research altogether (don’t let them tell you keeping one scientist here or two there counts).

We have gone from 300 forestry researchers at CSIRO two decades ago to 33 today. Now CSIRO is about to slam the door on forestry research — abandoning massive potential for advances in carbon storage, productivity, bio-plastics and a whole range of new uses of this wonderful renewable resource.

The 80 000 Australians who work in forest industries around Australia are pleading for your help.”

The letter was signed by Mr Hampton for FPA; Rod McInnes the chief executive of Timber Queensland; Maree McKaskill general manager of the NSW FPA; Melissa Haslam executive director of Forest Industries Federation WA; Tim Johnston Chief executive officer of the Victorian Association of Forest Industries; Tim Edwards chief executive of Forest Industries Association of Tasmania; and Simon Dorries general manager of Engineered Wood Products Association of Australasia.

An advertisement in the Canberra Times reminded the Prime Minister of his previously expressed and well-publicised commitment to the FPA and to forest industries with the quote from his speech to them back in March,

“We want the timber industries to be a vital part of Australia’s economic future, not just something that was a relic of our history. That’s what this government wants.”

Up on Black Mountain where researchers wait to learn who will stay and who will go, these words would be sounding very hollow indeed.